Entering the 2008 season, there was a lot of concern surrounding the quarterback position and who the starter would be on opening day. The late great Steve McNair had just retired, and it appeared a battle was imminent between Kyle Boller and Troy Smith. But, the Ravens had a plan as the 2008 draft neared.
With a new regime in place and former Philadelphia Eagles assistant John Harbaugh leading the way, identifying a young quarterback that Harbaugh and his coaching staff could groom made the most sense, and the Ravens didn’t look too far up I-95-North to get their man, as they traded up in the draft to secure Delaware’s Joe Flacco. During the preseason, Boller was named the starter, but suffered a season-ending injury that put Smith in the No. 1 role. But in a strange twist of fate, Smith succumbed to a rare case of tonsillitis shortly after Boller’s injury, and Flacco became the starter by default.
What a blessing it was for the Ravens to start their No. 1 prospect in the organization from day one, as he exceeded every expectation possible by starting all 16 games and completing 60-percent of his passes for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Flacco led Baltimore to the AFC Championship Game in his first-year, but was overmatched against a strong defensive Pittsburgh Steelers team. After the season, Flacco was named the Diet Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year, which is an online vote conducted by fans and is completely separate from the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Throughout the season, Flacco displayed tremendous poise and leadership ability, and the playoff run he took the Ravens on last season will instill confidence beyond belief in him and benefit the organization sooner rather than later.
Another player that exceeded expectations last year was fullback Le’Ron McClain. A fourth round selection in 2007, McClain was drafted out of Alabama as the top fullback in the draft. And, coming out of Alabama, McClain, the No. 2 prospect in the Ravens organization, had the ability to carry the ball with above average speed and catch the ball with ease out of the backfield. The problem was that nobody knew how good he would be in a featured role, and that skepticism was raised because he had never done it before. But after a promising rookie campaign, the Ravens liked his talent enough to give him a lot of touches in ’08, as a part of a three-headed monster running back situation that also featured Willis McGahee and Ray Rice. As the team’s leading rusher last season, McClain had 232 carries for 902 yards and 10 touchdowns to go along with his 19 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown; he was named to the Pro Bowl for his efforts. Looking ahead to 2009, it appears that the Ravens will move McClain to his natural fullback position and use McGahee and Rice as the primary runners. But if the running game struggles, don’t be surprised to see McClain become the featured back and pick up where he left off last season.
A major reason for the success of the running game last season was the play of the offensive line. And, former first round selection and the No. 3 rated prospect in the organization, offensive guard Ben Grubbs, was the catalyst that lead the way. Grubbs, entering his third season in the league, has started 28 of a possible 32 games in his young career, and is an athletic interior lineman who can control the point of attack with his technique and strength. The Ravens have a nice mix of veterans and young players on their offensive line, and the addition of Matt Birk at center will only help Grubbs’ chances of making his first Pro Bowl this year.
The Ravens continued to upgrade their offensive line in the 2009 draft by selecting a player that I believe will end up being the best offensive tackle from a strong OT class in Ole Miss’ Michael Oher. At 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, Oher is an impressive athlete who possesses the ability to maul the opposition at the line of scrimmage. He’s an outstanding pass protector who blocks with a wide base, has quick feet and easily knocks defenders off their rush. He gets off the line well and is able to push defenders back in run situations. He demonstrates great balance, patience and a passion for the game. It was a surprise to see Oher last until the 23rd selection in the draft, and the 22 teams that passed him up will only motivate Oher to become an elite player. Oher, who checks in as the fourth rated prospect in the organization, was a top-ten talent in the draft, and that talent will be showcased at training camp in two weeks. Don’t be surprised to see Oher beat out veteran Adam Terry, who’s currently injured, as the starter at right tackle.
It’s hard to keep a team together in today’s NFL, and the Ravens experienced change this off-season with linebacker Bart Scott signing with the New York Jets. Over the past few seasons, the Ravens have gathered young linebackers through the draft, and Tavares Gooden is a player they’re very high on. A third round pick in the 2008 draft, Gooden, the fifth best prospect in the organization, played in just four games last season after undergoing season-ending hip surgery. He’s back to full health now and will develop into a force on the outside. Gooden is very quick and instinctive, and in the Ravens attacking defense, he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.
Also looking to make an impact this year are three second-year players that earned placement in the bottom half of the top-ten: No. 6 Ray Rice, No. 9 Tom Zbikowski and No. 10 Jameel McClain. Rice had a solid rookie year in ’08, rushing for 454 yards on 107 carries. He enters this year as the backup to McGahee and should see an increase in his touches. Zbikowski plays with a high motor and will see a majority of his time on special teams. He will see some action at strong safety, but with Dawan Landry entrenched as the starter; it will only be to give Landry a breather. An undrafted free agent last season, McClain was a pleasant surprise and displayed his pass rushing ability as a situational defender. He was an asset on special teams and should receive an increased role this year.
Former supplemental selection and starting left tackle, Jared Gaither enters his third season with the Ravens as the seventh rated prospect in the organization. A massive figure on the field, the 6-foot-9, 330-pound Gaither is still developing, but has the talent to be one of the best LTs in the league. He did an outstanding job of protecting Flacco last year, and with an improved O-Line, Gaither is gaining valuable experience every time he’s on the field. Rookie linebacker Paul Kruger also made the list of top prospects in the Ravens organization, checking in at No. 8. Kruger is expected to back up Jarret Johnson this season and will see a lot of action on special teams.Offensive guard Marshal Yanda received consideration for the top-ten, but after he tore his ACL, MCL and PCL last season, there’s no telling how he will respond when he returns at some point this year.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.